Saturday, 1 October 2016

22, A MILLION Album Review

"For thirty-four beautiful, heart-wrenching minutes, [on 22, A Million,] Justin Vernon meditates on loss, the past, and regret"

Music, and entertainment as a whole, has the odd capacity to impart meaning through obliqueness. The inexplict nature of the lyricism behind Death Grips' work, particularly their earlier albums, like Ex Military and The Money Store, creates a sense of formidable aggression. You don't need to understand the words MC Ride is screaming into the microphone, as they are not necessarily important; their purpose lies solely in their presence in the musical tapestry the group are trying to compose. Similarly, one may find it difficult to enjoy Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, due to its elusive plot and quirky pacing. One might question what the point of the novel is, if its deeper meaning is too arcane for the average reader to discern. But, as Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times puts it, with regards to the central concept of paranoia, "paranoia is less a political or metaphysical state than a byproduct of smoking too much weed." That feeling of derision is not (or shouldn't be) trying to fool you into the idea that there is a deeper meaning; it's telling you there isn't. The mood of the novel is what's important: that feeling of "smoking too much weed." Of being swept away in a tide of hopelessness and endless angst. That's where its art is being composed, and that's what makes the piece work.

22, A Million, the latest work from Bon Iver, embraces obliqueness wholeheartedly. For thirty-four beautiful, heart-wrenching minutes, Justin Vernon meditates on loss, the past, and regret; concepts which are certainly not unfamiliar for the artist, but are given new life through progressively more ambiguous metaphorical comparisons, and logic-less phrases. He obscures his meaning underneath a haze of synthesizers and vocoders, distorting both his voice and a wide array of unique instruments to create an atmosphere of remorse. It's reminiscent of Kanye West's work on the album 808s and Heartbreak, in the sense that electronic deformation is incorporated to better demonstrate the emotion that the artist is trying to convey. Both lyricism and musicality combine to create a work that says little that's truly blatant, but enough that the purpose is made abundantly clear, if only through the mood of the work. 

The album begins striped back, and remains this way throughout. If anything, Vernon interpolates minimalism with increasing frequency as the work flies through track after track. On the opening two pieces, the electronically-fuelled '22 (OVER S∞∞N)' and '10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄', schizophrenic, atonal production helps to accentuate the solemnity of this introduction. On the former, Vernon takes a vocal sample and stutters it over and over again, creating a relatively austere aural environment that he supplements with brief solo saxophone and piano passages. Disregarding the painfully candid lyricism entirely, which is affecting enough as it is, the production from Vernon immediately envelops the listener in a reflective aura. The latter track approaches this mood in a similar, yet distinct manner, juxtaposing the synthetic and organic elements in the mix to create an effective fusion of discordance and melody. A hard synth and drum pattern rumbles underneath the instrumental; with it, a foreboding malice infects the lower end. Vernon contrasts this vitriol with an ensemble of violins, arranged by Rob Moose, which dance up and down scales with urgency and life. When combined, '10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄' possesses a tragic, powerful atmosphere, that demonstrates Vernon’s ability to balance pain, anger, and honesty.

On the other end of the scale, the final two tracks, the quiet and earnest ‘____45_____’, and ‘00000 Million’, have virtually no electronic manipulation. Still, they remain as detailed and riveting as the pieces which appear earlier on in the running time. It is here that fans of Bon Iver’s more folk-bound sound will find a plethora of material to get behind. Gorgeous vocal harmonies, piano melodies, and guitar work augment Vernon and co-writer Michael Lewis’ ruminations on both hope, and inevitable, self-inflicted decay.  

It’s easy to see 22, A Million’s compositions and lyricism as pretentious banality if you’re intrinsically opposed to these kinds of musical constructs, and Vernon’s way of telling an abstract, yet relatively comprehensible story. But a listener doesn’t have to dissect the purpose of the fabricated word “fuckified” on '10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄' to appreciate the emotion that permeates this record. Vernon’s voice has always had a way of accentuating the sentimental nuances embedded in the words he sings; nuances that may not otherwise exist if it weren’t for his wavering, yearning falsetto. The remorse that carries through to the listener as Vernon sings “This is how we grow now, woman/A child ignored/These will just be places to me now” on ’33 “GOD”’ is palpable and harrowing.

Yes, sadness and anguish is something that has constant presence on 22, A Million, but there are instances where Vernon’s cynicism is exchanged for a realistic dose of optimism. The major chord warmth of ‘29 #Strafford APTS’ helps to provide variation in-and-amongst darkness and reveries on religion and higher power. The vast quantity of tonal shifts that are explored throughout this record lend testament to Vernon’s impressive expressive range.

It’s difficult to fully demonstrate using words how Vernon manipulates musical concepts to create an album which practically oozes empathy. His abstract ideas are always grounded by a sense of human vulnerability; this has been a staple of his style since Bon Iver’s origin, with For Emma, Forever Ago. The same poignant candour that made the simple chords of ‘Re: Stacks’ all those years ago so beautiful is constantly present throughout 22, A Million. The metaphysical imagery here is denser than anything else he’s done before, but the writing remains descriptive and detailed; poetic in nature. Vernon’s music, and his ability to paint the world in colours of rich emotion, allow his compositions to remain both accessible, and as deep as a listener wants to allow them to be. 22, A Million, alongside Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool and David Bowie’s Blackstar, is one of the standout works of the year to date. You can purchase 22, A Million on Amazon or iTunes, here and here.


Additional notes about release: extended versions of '33 "GOD"', '10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄', '22 (OVER S∞∞N)', and '715 - CRΣΣKS' can be found on Youtube, but are not included on the album release.

Track Listing

1.22 (OVER S∞∞N)2:48
2.10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄2:24
3.715 - CRΣΣKS2:12
4.33 "GOD"3:33
5.29 #Strafford APTS4:05
6.666 ʇ4:12
7.21 M♢♢N WATER3:08
8.8 (circle)5:09
10.00000 Million3:53
 Total Album Time:34:10

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